FEMA Drops Bomb on Local Officials


Nearly five months after hurricane Ian, and three months after FEMA told local municipalities to use Lee County Property Appraiser Matt Caldwell’s home valuations, FEMA now says Caldwell’s calculations are invalid.

The February 14th letter sent to Lee County, Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel officials will have a major impact on how homeowners rebuild, specifically FEMA’s 50% rule.

The letter from FEMA notifies municipalities they can no longer use the Tax Roll Value Letter produced by Caldwell’s office, which was prepared in October of 2022, after the storm. That Tax Roll Value Letter has been the basis upon which calculations of FEMA’s 50% rule have been made by the Town in reviewing permit applications for property owners rebuilding. The Town was using those calculations because that was the direction FEMA was giving them since early November. This week FEMA completely changed the rules.

FEMA has, all of sudden, and without a clear explanation to Caldwell, determined there’s a wide disparity in how building value adjustments were developed. Caldwell was never notified the letter was coming or given a chance to explain how he calculated his numbers. When he finally spoke to a FEMA rep this week and explained how he calculated the numbers, the FEMA rep he spoke with had no idea what he was talking about. Caldwell tried to explain to FEMA that the way he calculated the numbers has been the same way they’ve been calculated for years.

While the town is changing the way it approves permits (as of 2/15), Lee County is holding firm for now and will continue to use Caldwell’s calculations. Here’s what Lee County Spokesperson Betsy Clayton told us: “The county continues to have conversations with the Florida Division of Emergency Management and FEMA to determine what the appropriate just value calculation may be, whether it is a valuation offered by the Property Appraiser or another calculation.”

The town notified residents this week that, “Because FEMA cannot determine if the values stated on the Tax Roll Value Letter are acceptable, the Town of Fort Myers Beach is required as of February 15, 2023, to use the “building cost value” on the LEEPA.org website.”

The building cost value is one of the two building valuation options for determining if a building has exceeded the substantial damage/substantial improvement 50% threshold (i.e. the 50% rule). In all likelihood this change will result in many homeowners, who planned to fix their homes rather than demolish them, having a harder time staying under FEMA’s 50% rule.

What this means for Fort Myers beach property owners is that building permit applications for properties reviewed on or after February 15, 2023, will be reviewed using the “2022 building cost value” from the Lee County Property Appraiser’s website (LEEPA.org.) The building value found on the “Tax Roll Value Letter” that was produced by the Lee County Property Appraiser’s Office in October 2022 will no longer be used.

This may also require Fort Myers Beach residents to pay for two private property appraisals. From the beginning local officials have been advising residents to get a private appraisal because that is always going to be the most accurate number and, they say, accepted by FEMA. However, a rule in the town code may require residents, already strapped for cash, to pay for two private appraisals. If the first appraisal is 35% higher than the LEEPA value of your home, the town may require you to get a second appraisal. Town staff is actually working on ways to get that second appraisal requirement out of their ordinance.

Despite having representatives throughout Lee County, FEMA has done a horrible job communicating with local officials. There was no warning this latest change in the rules was coming and there has been no clear communication about the change to local elected officials. It has also left local officials wondering if the rules could change again.

The biggest unknown right now is what will happen to the homeowners who already have permits using Caldwell’s original numbers. Will FEMA go after those homeowners for using those calculations? FEMA can decide to kick Fort Myers Beach out of the national flood insurance program. If that happens it would be impossible for residents on the island to get a mortgage.

Fort Myers Beach Mayor Dan Allers and Town Manager Keith Wilkins are meeting with FEMA at 1:30 today.

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